T and H DOOLAN’S BAR, WATERFORD
The bus arrived in Waterford an hour later and descended the steep hill through the town to the wide bridge across the River Suir. It was surprising to find just how large Irish rivers were until you remembered the rainfall level. Today, at least, there was little chance of forgetting it.
Climbed off the bus and sheltered in Plunkett railway station. Oliver Plunkett certainly seemed to have risen in the world. When I first heard of him, he’d been plain Blessed Oliver. Now, he was not only Saint Oliver but he’d been made into a railway station as well. As an old Welsh lady of my acquaintance used to say about weddings where the bride wasn’t pregnant:
Had a Full Irish Breakfast in the cafeteria as I seemed to be running a bit short on cholesterol, then walked back over the bridge to the main town.
Waterford was inhabited in the first place by the Vikings. Their settlement had been overlaid by a medieval street pattern, then again intersected by broader eighteenth century roads. The main street, Barronstrand, was in the process of being pedestrianised and presently was simply a stretch of uneven rubble. After a thousand years, it had managed to return to its original Viking appearance.
Not sure whether it was because of the ugly rain clouds looming over the valley, or because of the chill wind blowing along the quays, or simply because it was a Sunday, but I didn’t take to Waterford. Perhaps a more concrete reason (in every sense) was that across the river on the eastern bank there was a long, wooded hill which was dominated by a quite hideous block of cement. It turned out to be a hotel, but more resembled a neo-Brutalist crematorium. It destroyed what once must have been a fine horizon.
My feeling of vague alienation was not improved by the news at the Tourist Office that there were no camping sites in Waterford. The nearest was in Tramore seven miles away. There was, however, a hostel nearby. It was large and looked new; it also had a ‘No Vacancies’ sign on the front door. On enquiry at the reception desk, the doorman reluctantly conceded that they did have a spare bed in one of the dormitories, though I would not be allowed to check in till 3.30pm. Four hours to kill.
Persuaded him to store Bosie in a cupboard, then set off to explore the town. After checking a few of the main streets there did seem to be some good candidates for the show. There was a theatre called the Garter Lane Arts Centre, a night club called Roxy’s, and some probable pubs.
After half an hour the showers dwindled and I sat on a riverside bench by the Clock Tower. Decided that this would make a passable office headquarters for the duration. Checked out a tourist brochure. Amongst other things, it provided the information that it was in Waterford that the first frog had been introduced into Ireland. Not a lot of people know that.
A man sat on the other end of the bench and I nodded hello. He did not reply. That would have been unremarkable in London or in most towns for that matter but, coming out of the West where friendliness was a civic duty, it was disquieting. The drizzle restarted.
Walked along till I came to a modern hi-tech heritage museum on the waterfront. It was a confusing place; I entered a lift which shot up for three floors before opening on to a series of display cases. Wandered around them for ten minutes before a uniformed girl approached.
“Do you realise that there is an entrance charge and, in any case, you’ve entered through the exit?”
Found myself being led outside in disgrace. It was still raining. The only shelter in sight was a Macdonalds restaurant. Once inside, I knew I was back in the real world. For the first time since arriving in Ireland, I looked at the counter staff and recognised that familiar, glassy-eyed indifference as to whether the customers lived or died. Sure, there had been lukewarm service before but at least that was down to honest-to-God boredom. But this was different; this was just zombie labour. The ‘have a nice day’ patter was like a horrible parody of the essential Irish genius for hospitality. Changed the order from ‘Eat Here’ to ‘Takeaway’; even the rain was preferably to staying.
Stood under an awning and ate some of the burger. Fed the rest to a seagull, then looked around for a litter-bin. There were none. Usually I was fairly meticulous about disposal of litter but something about Waterford was getting to me. My truculence levels were rising. The sight of the monstrous hotel on the far hilltop decided the matter. If the Waterfordians were so uncaring about the place that they could allow that to happen, a pile of Mcdonalds’ rubbish was not going to upset them. Slung the wrappings along the pavement and stalked off. Surprising how tiny rebellions can make you feel better.
Sheltered in the entrance of Reginald’s Tower for an hour. It was an old Viking keep constructed circa 1003, with an attached Restaurant Carvery constructed circa 1995. Returned to the hostel at three thirty. This time, the receptionist was a young woman who was staring fixedly at the closed circuit TV screens that covered the public areas of the building. She acknowledged my presence after a few minutes, accepted seventeen pounds for two nights’ stay, handed over a key card and then, barely stopping for breath, read out what was an obviously well-worn speech of introduction.
“All rooms are non-smoking with the exception of the lounge. The television in the lounge is turned off at twelve midnight. No noise is allowed after midnight and must be kept to a minimum at all other times. We have a strict residents only rule. You must vacate the hostel by ten thirty am. No alcohol or illegal substances are allowed on the premises. You must carry your identification key card at all times. All persons must undertake not to do anything which, in the opinion of management, may cause an annoyance. No eating is allowed in the dormitory. We reserve the right to expel anyone who does not adhere to these rules.”
As the recitation subsided, I said: “Other than that, enjoy yourself?”
She remained stony-faced. If humour was the wine of life, she was a teetotaller. Wheeled Bosie along the bare echoing corridors to the dormitory. It housed six double bunk beds and, while not quite in the same league as the infamous ‘Cedar Room of Listowel’, it still radiated a grimness that conformed perfectly to the greeting at the reception desk.
Lay back on a bunk bed and considered the position. I was beginning to take a dislike to Waterford; the people were unfriendly, the hostel was horrible, and the weather was crap. I thought back fondly to Kellys in Cork and Andrea with her Yeats poems on the walls and her smoking club in the backyard.
Once again, it was important to have a night off from the pubs but I did not fancy spending it at the hostel. I guessed that it would be a bit too much like recreation hour at Parkhurst Prison, minus the ping-pong tournament. Decided on the cinema instead. Went downstairs to the kitchen and brewed up a Pot Noodle – very Cordon Noir. A few fellow inmates were cooking more exotic fare. But the atmosphere seemed to have affected everyone. We all avoided each other’s eyes and nobody spoke. Ate the Pot Noodle in the lounge then rose to leave. And I swear to God that the next door to the lounge was marked ‘Room 101’.
The cinema was a six screen multiplex; every screen was showing a film aimed at the teenage American market. In a mood approaching almost Scrooge-like misanthropy, I inwardly fumed against a movie culture that seemed incapable of doing anything except pander to the tastes of adolescent retards from Idaho. Spent the evening chewing popcorn and sneering at the Los Angeles high school system.
At 10.30pm, walked back through the dark alleyways to the hostel. Received and returned grunts with the receptionist, sat in the empty lounge and turned on Sky TV. Golf! My sense of humour finally admitted defeat and I stumped off to the darkened dormitory. Various sets of breathing hissed and whistled out of the gloom. Climbed into the bunk and thankfully went to sleep.
DAY TWENTY-FOUR: MONDAY
Rose at 9am, went downstairs and phoned the Co Waterford Arts Council once more. This time, managed to avoid the Fire Brigade and actually made contact with Mr Verso, the administrator himself. He was genuinely helpful and gave me a list of suggestions. Felt it was very decent of him and at last my opinion of Waterford began to rise. An element of better nature struggled through. After all, my fulminations yesterday represented pretty irrational thinking. You couldn’t condemn a whole town just on the basis of a few hours and, to be fair, wet Sundays were not good news anywhere.
Went out into the sunlight and strolled along the quayside till I found the Arts Centre, one of Mr Verso’s recommendations. A girl in the box office directed me up to the office of the senior administrator. She was a tall efficient looking woman who said good morning while looking at her watch. Started to explain the situation, but she cut me short.
“I can only spare three minutes. I’m due at an important meeting with an administrator from Dublin.”
In fact, I didn’t even get three minutes; she briskly signalled to an assistant to take over and left. My good humour had been premature and the hackles started to rise again. To do her justice, she didn’t really understand what was happening and, while my appearance might now be perfectly acceptable within the vagrant community, possibly I had forfeited some credibility in theatrical circles. All the same, her attitude struck me as ‘I do wish these bloody artists would stop interfering with the vital job of arts administration’. There were six staff poring over computers in the office: the arts world had reached the ludicrous position whereby there were more people employed in theatre bureaucracy than there were working actors.
Humph! The bile boiled. I felt like a bloodied veteran returning from the Western Front to be snubbed by some popinjay from Staff HQ. Had I fought off Cliff Richard at the Battle of Killorglin just for this?!
Happily for the blood pressure, the assistant was more helpful and suggested a pub called T and H Doolans.
“It’s mostly a music bar. Sinaid O’Connor used to perform there. But they might take theatre. You never know.” Thanked her and left.
Went to the recommended Doolans at lunchtime. It was an old, half-timbered building that looked rather like an English country village pub. Inside, there were wooden beam ceilings, stone flagged floors and aging framed adverts: ‘Bisto’, ‘Rough Shag’, ‘Woodbines’, etc. One read ‘Drink Canada Dry’. It reminded me of the famous quote by Brendan Behan that, when he first saw the slogan, he thought it was a challenge.
The barman was friendly and read through the Kerryman article. After checking with his boss, he returned with a smile and said:
“Sure, you can play here. Just so long as you’re finished by the time the musicians get here at nine thirty.” We shook hands on it.
As I walked down Barronstrand to the Clock Tower bench, the actor Tom Courtenay passed by. Then I realised that it wasn’t him but a man who looked very similar – that same ancient schoolboy face. Realised that I was undergoing an attack of the ‘lookalikes’.
It was a phenomenon that I’d noticed before. When you are in a new town, particularly if you’re on your own, you start to recognise familiar faces among perfect strangers. It’s entertaining, if at times a little unnerving. Occasionally you start to wonder a bit about sanity and suchlike but I’ve never noticed any lasting effects.
Spent the next two hours on the usual publicity chores: sticking up posters wherever possible, leaving piles of fliers at the hotels, then a quick chat-up chase round the Munster Express office and the Waterford Local Radio station. By 3pm, I had covered the angles and slowed down.
Waterford began to take on a rosier hue. A Pan Pipe player was performing in Barronstrand: despite my lifelong aversion to the Pan Pipes, I dropped a pound into his hat. Us troubadours had to stick together. Then walked back along the quayside, passing Bernadette Devlin hand in hand with Dale Winton. Gave my head a vigorous shake. Jaysus, get a grip!
Back at the hostel, the lounge was occupied by two Australian girls and a middle-aged English couple on a cycling tour. Breaking the tacit code of silence, I invited them to the show. Nervously they muttered thanks. Went upstairs for a shower, then returned to the dormitory. Although I was feeling more pleasantly disposed towards Waterford town, the same did not apply to the hostel. This place would depress a Prozac tablet – it was a horrible cross between a Borstal and a kindergarten.
A very sinister young man came in and lay down on a bunk. No word was spoken. He looked seriously dangerous; as if he’d booked in here with the intention of either committing murder or committing suicide, and he wasn’t too bothered which. I tried to sleep. Not that easy with what looked like a potential Waterford Ripper cleaning his fingernails with a clasp knife ten feet away.
Finally drowsed off. The usual thespian nightmare is that the actor has walked on stage with no idea of his lines. The variant that I dreamt was that I was in Leicester Square in London and had only one hour in which to reach Waterford. A significant psychological shift.
Returned to T and H Doolans at 7pm and set up the stage area between the front door and the bar counter – a mistake, as I discovered later. A few people straggled in, including the English cyclists and the Aussie girls. There was also a group of six exuberantly voluble students in front.
Began the show at 8.20pm. Not bad. Only twenty minutes late.
“I love acting. It is so much more real than life. Besides, being natural is such a difficult pose to keep up. Also, actors are so much more fortunate than real people. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears. But in real life, it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications at all. Our Poloniuses have to play Hamlet for us and our Hamlets have to jest like Prince Hal. The world is a stage but the play is badly cast. Of course, there are drawbacks to being an actor. I once saw a play in which Herbert Beerbohm Tree appeared in pyjamas. There followed the greatest sympathy for Mrs Tree.”
The students turned out to be a godsend: some real laughers amongst them and there was even a reverent hush during the sad jail sequence. The only real problem – foreseeable yet unforeseen – was the regular movement of newcomers from the front door passing between myself and the audience on the way to the bar. Finished at ten past nine and collected thirty quid in the hat. A workaday show but not bad.
As I cleared up the stage, a group of elderly Americans invited me over for a drink. They were from Louisville, Kentucky, although at least two claimed Irish ancestry.
“It’s a common thing in the States” said one of them called Harrison. “There’s an estimated forty million Irish there.”
They were effusive in their praise for the show. Harrison mentioned that the last solo show that he had seen had been in Louisville and had consisted of a man hitting and splitting water melons with a sledgehammer.
“It was a very popular act all over Kentucky. Then one night he hit the melon and, instead of splitting, it flew off and hit a member of the audience. The guy sued. End of act.”
I laughed. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll remember never to use sledgehammers or melons in the Oscar Wilde show.”
“You do that, son.”
The traditional music band moved into the alcove beside us. They consisted of two guitarists called ‘The Guvners’ and one of them had an excellent alto voice. Settled back and listened to their version of ‘The Town I Loved So Well’, a lament by Phil Coulter about the present day troubles in Derry. I told the Louisville crowd that it was one of my favourite tunes.
Harrison shook his head:
“No, it’s not for me. The music over here is too sad.”
“Well, there is some incredibly lively stuff as well.”
However, The Guvners chose that moment to move on to a fifteen-minute version of the Furies song “The Green Fields of France” – about the death toll at the Battle of the Somme. Which rather undermined my case. The Louisville people left.
Sat and drank – the drawback now was that not only were the drinks not free but they were the most expensive so far encountered, two pounds, forty five pence a pint. I don’t think that it was the fault of the bar staff. Doonans was part of a chain and also it was the first really tourist pub that I’d performed in. They worked on a different basis to real pubs.
By 10.30pm, the place had filled up with uneasy visitors. Despite the arrival of a very good bodhran player to join The Guvners, the genuine craic was missing and, anyway, I couldn’t afford the booze prices. Left at 11pm.
Back to the hostel reception, enquired about four socks that I’d left for their washing machine service. The latest guard consulted some papers, then said that I’d failed to pay the two pound fee in advance.
“But nobody told me that you wanted it in advance. In any case, you’d got the socks as collateral.”
He still insisted. Paid up and retired to the lounge. Two teenagers watched Sky TV in oppressive silence. Then, dead on midnight, the guard walked in and switched off the TV and lights. I guessed as much – this was probably the only precision timing in Ireland.
In a thoroughly bolshie mood, I went upstairs to the dormitory and tiptoed over towards my bunk. Although the room was dark, a chink of moonlight revealed what appeared to be two heads lying on my pillow. What the hell! This was the last straw. Then I realised that they were two motorcycle helmets. Rolled them on to the floor, causing a sleepy protest from the Waterford Ripper, then climbed into bed and silently but heartily cursed the hostel. Slept.
DAY TWENTY-FIVE: TUESDAY
After a breakfast of Mars bars and a cheese-and-onion crisp sandwich, gathered Bosie together and made for the reception to end the sock saga. They were still not dry. Sat and grizzled outside Room 101. Finally they were produced. As I walked out, the girl on the desk called out:
“You’re meant to sign the ‘Comments’ leaflet before you leave.”
Turned back. “I don’t think that you’d appreciate them much.”
“But it’s part of hostel rules.”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
I’d always wanted to say that.